Still same Clippers, one year after sale

ByRamona Shelburne via ESPN logo
Saturday, May 30, 2015
ESPN

MALIBU, Calif. -- Aside from a few brown leaves and spider webs at the front gate, the house is still in good enough shape that you could throw a party on a day's notice. Over the years, Donald and Shelly Sterling hosted hundreds of events at their New England-style mansion in Malibu. Guests would walk through the portico of the front house onto a tennis court for cocktails and appetizers. The Sterlings lived in the back house, on the other side of the tennis court, right on the beach.

Shelly lives alone now, though her nephew is around a lot. So are a handful of longtime girlfriends. But her life looks very different from a year ago, when the NBA banned her husband -- including from attending any games -- after TMZ published recordings of him making racist remarks to his former mistress, V. Stiviano. Shelly had to sell the team before the league seized it and auctioned it off for her, but she got to keep the house in Malibu, her courtside seats at Staples Center and the made-up title of the Los Angeles Clippers' "No. 1 fan."

It was an abrupt, seismic change. We'd all probably still be in court, listening to Donald's lawyers incessant appeals if Shelly hadn't wrested control of the family trust away from her husband and sold the team without his consent. But the decision came at a cost.

"My family didn't talk to me for a while, because I was selling the team. They were all against me," she says over a late-afternoon snack around the small table in their airy, beach-facing kitchen. The Sterling family had owned the Clippers for 30 years. It's who they were. And in a little over a month, that life was finished.

Shelly hasn't given any interviews in the year since she sold the team to Steve Ballmer for a record $2 billion on May 29, 2014. When people ask to take pictures with her, she politely declines.

"That's not my role," she explains. "My role is to not be known."

She only agreed to this interview because the story was about to be rehashed anyway if the Clippers kept winning and ascending to new heights in their first year without the Sterlings. In the first round, they dethroned the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. In the second round, they went up 3-1 on the Houston Rockets. One more win and L.A. would advance to the first Western Conference finals in franchise history and face the Golden State Warriors. The rematch of last season's seven-game, first-round series -- during which the TMZ tapes of Donald were published, after Game 3 -- was bound to reopen the stitch in time she thought she had sewn up.

All the Clippers needed was one more win to complete their metamorphosis. When they went up by 19 points late in the third quarter of Game 6 at Staples Center, their fans began to stand. Rain fell outside the arena, rare for Los Angeles so deep into May but perfect for a parched landscape -- and fan base. Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant even tweeted out a message of congratulations. They were right there. So close.

Too close.

All inside the arena experienced the meltdown in their own way. It happened quickly, and yet there were moments within it that stretched out like a piece of taffy.

They couldn't possibly blow this one, right? Not this year. Not after beating the Spurs.

But the Rockets kept coming. And the Clippers kept missing. At one point, L.A. missed 11 shots in a row.

It was agonizing to watch. Fans who stood up when the lead swelled to 19, to let the history wash over them, were now frozen in their positions. Sitting was an act of submission. Standing left them more exposed to the pain.

The Rockets ended up winning Game 6 by 13 points. The collapse was so complete, there was even time at the end of the game for shock to give way to anger. Breaking through old shackles, moving forward, creating a new way of being. Even with the best of intentions, that's incredibly difficult. But this team, this year, had convinced folks that the Clippers really had changed. People stood up. They let their guard down.

There's usually this moment in a relationship when one person takes a leap of faith and hopes the other person will catch them. There's no going back after that.

It hurts too much when you fall.

Shelly Sterling arrived a few minutes late to that fateful Game 6 loss. She'd been attending a convention in Las Vegas and her flight was delayed by the rain. She still flies commercial most of the time. She was rich before the $2 billion sale, although technically only $1 billion of the sale is available to her -- and of that she paid out $600 millionin taxes. The other billion is frozen until Donald signs off.

"I fly Southwest," she says. "I like them. The peanuts. How you choose the seats. That's my airline. I'd fly them anyway."

She has a taste for the finer things. Her favorite restaurant is Nobu, an ultra-fancy sushi place a few miles up Pacific Coast Highway. But on most things she's the practical sort, as women of her generation tend to be.

"I couldn't believe we lost that game," she says. "Here we are at home, everybody's healthy. They even took [James] Harden out and we lost. The thing I didn't like is they didn't make any adjustments." The next morning she woke up and read in the Los Angeles Times that she was part of the reason the team fell apart.

"It said, 'At 2 minutes and 12 seconds before the end of the first quarter, a black cloud, Shelly Sterling, walked into the arena ... and that's why we lost,'" she says.

"If I was the black cloud, how did we get 19 points up while I was there? That hurt me very much. But what can I do? Can you fight the times?"

She's dressed casually in a loose-fitting, black shirt with a white collar. Her hair is done, but not perfect. It's the weekend, and she's comfortable enough with everyone in the house to go without makeup. At 80, she's long since made her impressions on the world.

"I don't call it a 'Clipper Curse,'" she says. "Look at the Lakers. Kobe's been hurt the last two years. What about Oklahoma [City]? They lost Kevin Durant, they didn't get into the playoffs. Is that a curse? I just call it part of the game."

The only black clouds around for Game 7 of the second round were thunderheads. It's usually hot and muggy in Houston this time of year. But when it rains overnight, the water just sits on the pavement until the sun comes out and starts to bake. By 10 a.m. on the morning of Game 7, the city is a sauna. There are skyways connecting the buildings around downtown so out-of-town conventioneers can try to maintain the appearance of business attire, but somehow the heavy air eventually manages to get inside of every building.

Every seat inside the Toyota Center was covered with a T-shirt that read, "Clutch City," a reference to the 1994-95 Rockets team that rallied from 2-0 and 3-1 series deficit to beat the Phoenix Suns in the conference semifinals on their way to back-to-back NBA titles. In that first season, the Rockets dropped the first two home games of the series. The Houston Chronicle ran a front page "Choke City" headline after the second game. It was a familiar narrative for the city in those days. In 1993, the Houston Oilers blew a 32-point lead to the Buffalo Bills in a playoff game (still the largest comeback ever in an NFL playoff game). Losses like that stick with you for years. They become part of a civic identity. Ask a Cubs fan about their job and they'll start listing the reasons they'll probably lose it one day.

No franchise's fans have suffered like the Clippers'. Somebody in L.A. tells you they grew up rooting for the Clippers, and you want to have a chat with their parents. Why subject a child to the misery of rooting for one of the worst franchises in professional sports under Donald Sterling? In recent years, the Clippers became more respectable. But for most of the past three decades, being a Clipper fan was an act of self-inflicted punishment. Their brightest stars would fall, either to injury or vices. And even if a star did survive long enough to connect with fans in a meaningful way, Donald Sterling inevitably ruined it somehow.

Initially, star forward Blake Griffin seemed to fall under the curse's spell, breaking his kneecap in summer league before his rookie season. Asked about the talented forward's misfortune, then Lakers coach Phil Jackson famously said, "I'm of that generation that believes in karma. I do think there is karma in effect, ultimately. But I can't proclaim anybody else's karma. That's their own making. If you do a good mitzvah, maybe you can eliminate some of those things. You think [Donald] Sterling's done enough mitzvahs?"

Jackson wasn't just a Laker arrogantly thumbing his nose at his franchise's unfortunate civic foil. He was a man with an old grudge, taking a shot at Sterling for how he mistreated Bill Fitch, Jackson's old college coach at North Dakota, when he refused to pay out Fitch's contract after he fired him as coach of the Clippers in 1998.

All this was supposed to be over, with Donald Sterling banished from the NBA for life. Ballmer took over, lit some sage and sweetgrass to smudge away the bad energy, then threw a dance party. And yet here they all were, falling right back into character.

It would have been easier for some if Shelly Sterling had attended the Game 7 loss in Houston. Even if the narrative that connects her to the Clippers' epic collapse against the Rockets is ridiculous, at least it's there. Somewhere in the irrational recesses, surrounded by scar tissue from three decades of old wounds and disappointments, there exists an explanation in which she is somehow responsible (psychically? karmically? spiritually?) for the Clippers' blowing a 3-1 series lead. It's strangely comforting to think this could be something other than a complete meltdown by the players and coaches involved.

But Shelly Sterling was nowhere near the Toyota Center for the Clippers' final death knell. She watched from her home in Malibu with a small group of friends and family.

No, the Clippers fell apart all on their own this year. The explanations and solutions must come from within.

Griffin lingered at the arena long after the game ended. For three days, he'd been walking around with a puffy welt under his left eye. From an elbow ... a head-butt ... who knows? It happened somewhere along the way. The Clippers had played in a playoff game every other day for the past two weeks. Griffin seemed exhausted in the last game. Like a boxer at the end of a brutal fight, his punches landed but did no damage. He'd drop his hands and get hit. During one particularly rough stretch of the third quarter of Game 7, Rockets guard Pablo Prigioni snatched a rebound away from Griffin, then stole the ball from him on two straight possessions.

The final statistics will show Griffin had an incredible playoff run this year, averaging 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists. Those are Oscar Robertson-type numbers. But he clearly wasn't himself at the end. He'd played 557 minutes over the past 14 games (39.8 minutes per game). He had to. The Clippers had no depth this year. Spencer Hawes and Glen Davis were the only reserve big men who saw playing time, and Griffin had to carry an even larger load in the first two games of the Rockets series with Chris Paul out with a hamstring injury.

No one was around when I saw him about an hour after the game. He'd been visiting with DeAndre Jordan and his family up in the stands, commiserating with his closest friend on the team. At first he didn't want to talk about the physical toll of these last two series. It's not an excuse, he said. But when I press a little, he nodded and said he's never been as tired in his entire life.

"I tried to bring it tonight," Griffin says. "I tried."

Griffin's been answering questions about the "Clipper Curse" since he was drafted. That's actually the first thing anyone asked him when he was drafted No. 1 overall. But it hadn't come up much in the past few years. The franchise seemed to have moved into the light.

Then it all came undone against the Rockets. Was it the curse? Or were they all just exhausted?

"The 'Clippers Curse' when I first got here was No. 1 picks getting hurt, draft picks not working out," Griffin says. "Nobody talked about not getting past the first round of the playoffs. Not a single soul. Now that's what everybody talks about.

"Just like the last one, we're going to bust through this one."

That job falls on all of them now. To change and really make it stick, to break through whatever is holding them back, every player and coach in that locker room has to put himself through a period of painful self-reflection.

"It's going to be a long summer," Chris Paul says. "It's getting old, to tell you the truth."

After Game 7, coach Doc Rivers went up to Paul and Griffin and told them he needed to get them more "support" for next season. As both the team's coach and general manager, Rivers is responsible for both creating the team and guiding it. Very few coaches in the NBA have ever been entrusted with such power, which removes the system of checks and balances between front office and coaching staff.

Rivers earned his status last summer, after he held the franchise together through the worst of the Sterling scandal. When Stiviano's tapes first hit the Internet, the team asked Rivers to shield it. To speak for it, so it could try to focus on basketball. Rivers was masterful as an orator and leader. But it took a toll on him.

The Clippers lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round last season, when Paul melted down in Game 5, and the team finally crumbled under the weight of the scandal in Game 6. The season felt unfinished. Like an amputation.

"It was lingering over the whole team," says Warriors associate head coach Alvin Gentry, who played the same role for the Clippers last season. "Doc did a great job of handling it as much as he could. All our guys put on a brave face. Like it didn't affect anything. Well, of course it did. We felt like we had a hell of a team that had an opportunity to go far, and we didn't."

They all tried to move on from it by locking the emotions and memories away and never talking about any of it. Why rehash? Why relive? Better to just start anew.

That's how Rivers rebuilt his life when ugly, outside forces destroyed it once before. In 1997, the first year after he retired as a player, a group of kids broke into his home in San Antonio and set a devastating fire. He lost everything. All his basketball memorabilia. All his material possessions. Authorities later found the family dog, Ginger, burned to death in the rubble. The only things that survived were some family photos his friend, future Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, was able to save when he spotted the flames from a nearby golf course and ran into the house.

It felt like a strange thing to ask Rivers about in the moments after yet another season had come to an end. But when you've rebuilt after one fire, there's a strength in knowing you can do it again if you must.

"I've seen a lot of things that don't work out, but you just keep going," Rivers says. "I've never been a stopper."

As his longtime mentor and close friend Wayne Embry advised: "You just have to go on. I've had similar experiences. And you have to go on, because otherwise you allow someone else's problems to be your problems."

Three days after the Clippers' season ended, Shelly Sterling left on an art-appreciation trip to Cuba. She decided to go shortly after the American government lifted a 55-year embargo four months ago. International sanctions and a restrictive, secretive government have essentially preserved the island nation in amber. It is said that the streets of Havana look as they did in the 1950s, before Fidel Castro closed them to the outside world. But the truth is, signs of decay are everywhere. Total preservation is impossible. You can not simply close a door and stop it from changing. Time weathers a place.

It's interesting that this place is where Shelly chose to go on her first real vacation since her world changed last year. Perhaps it's nothing. Just a coincidence. A place she always wanted to go.

But in looking at how she spent this past year, it does seem that she's been looking for a way forward while preserving the parts of the past she never wanted to let go. "It was very difficult for me to lose the team," she says. "It was like my family. I've seen them [the Clippers] grow for 33 years. The coach [Rivers] used to be our player. And now to see his son [Austin Rivers] play, it's like part of your family.

"I never wanted to sell it, and we never would've sold it. But I didn't want to see it being dismantled. I mean, maybe they wouldn't even play for the whole year. I didn't know what the league was going to do. The only thing I knew is that I had to keep the team from being dismantled."

She chose Ballmer because he was the only prospective owner who was bidding by himself. He wouldn't have to answer to 10 other co-investors. She insisted he keep the team in Los Angeles, and he agreed. He also told her that he was going to beat whatever the next-highest bid was, no matter how high the price went.

That told her Ballmer was passionate, and that he'd treat the team like family -- not just an investment. He also understood that she was paying the price for her husband's words and deeds and was willing to make concessions in the sale agreement that allowed her to remain a part of the team as owner emeritus once she no longer owned it.

She went to about a third of the Clippers' home games this year. Most of the Clipper players have been friendly to her. Paul gave her a hug once. Griffin, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes andJ.J. Redickusually say hello when they see her sitting courtside.

"I don't think I did anything to hurt them," she says. "And I hope they never felt that I did. If anything, I was trying to save the team from being dismantled."

Shelly was able to sell the team without Donald's consent after three psychologists concluded he showed signs of Alzheimer's disease and was no longer fit to make decisions about his legal and business affairs.

It was a hell of a thing for someone to do to someone they've shared a life with for 60 years. And it was just the start of an emotional, messy legal battle that would stretch on for months. But Shelly was resolved. This was what she needed to do for the franchise and her family. This is how things had to change.

But for the sale to go through, she indemnified Ballmer and the NBA for any future damages. Essentially, even if Donald were to win his lawsuits and be awarded damages, they would be paid by the Sterling Family Trust, not Ballmer or the league.

Donald refused to accept the deal. He filed multiple lawsuits against the NBA and Shelly to try to stop the sale process. Several are still pending, with court dates scheduled for later this spring.

Just the other day, Shelly received a summons to appear in court for one of the cases.

The court system is really inadequate for creating meaningful change. It can give you a version of justice, but it can not return what is truly lost. Nor can it disentangle the deep psychic and emotional bonds that hold two people together.

Shelly and Donald Sterling's lives have been intertwined for so long, personally and professionally, lawyers have told them it would be more expensive to divorce than to co-exist by leading separate lives. Last year was the first time Shelly's ever meaningfully separated from him. She kicked him out after he argued over the phone with a mistress while he and his family were seated around the kitchen table for a Christmas dinner. It was too much. Too disrespectful. Her son Scott hugged her and told her that he was glad she stood up for herself.

A week later, Scott was found dead in his home, of a pulmonary embolism. A coroner's report found that his diabetes and oxycodone were also contributing factors. All the Clippers players attended his funeral.

Donald didn't come by the beach house for over 24 hours, leaving Shelly alone with her grief. It was the final straw. The kind of psychic break that changes a person and a relationship forever.

Shelly kept her distance from him for months. But her anger eventually coalesced around Stiviano, the mistress whom Donald would often bring with him to Clipper games. Shelly sued Stiviano, arguing that some $2 million in cash, jewelry, expensive cars and real estate that Donald had given to her was community property and not his to give. Stiviano pleaded with Donald to convince Shelly to drop the lawsuit. Shelly refused and pressed on with it. Two months later, the tapes where leaked to TMZ.

"Every time I would see her, she would just be so arrogant and mean," Shelly explains. "I was told by everyone I know that I wouldn't win, that I shouldn't do it. But I just felt I had to do something to make me feel like a person. I felt that I had to do it for a lot of women. There's so many girlfriends of mine that have the same problem, but they are afraid to do anything.

"It was not about the money. It was about cleansing my body."

Last month, a judge ruled in Shelly's favor in the case against Stiviano. A glow spreads across her face as she talks about the court victory.

"I wasn't interested in any of the money," Shelly says. "I just felt horrible that she could have taken us down. I'm not a vindictive person, but somehow I had to rectify the situation."

She takes off her sunglasses and looks me directly in the eye. This means a lot to her. She stood up for herself, she fought back and she won. Just not against the man who had cheated on her for decades, or called her a "pig" during the probate court trial to determine whether she had the right to sell the team without his consent.

"I knew he didn't mean it," she says. "He was just hurt. People say things when they're hurt. It's always been hard for him to hold back what he feels."

This is how their relationship has been for a long time, a family friend says. Donald lashes out, Shelly puts up with it. Donald philanders, Shelly deals with it. He loves her, but can't stop himself from hurting her. Old ways, old habits.

It's hard to know when things have really changed. You can be winning a series 3-1 and be up 19 points in the third quarter and have it all vanish in a few days.

Perhaps the premise is what's flawed. Change implies that something can be fundamentally altered, like a chemical reaction transforms one substance to another. The truth is that something can change and then change back at any time. The erosion can be swift or gradual. It does not imply weakness or a flawed spirit. It just means that it is hard. We get used to the bonds that bind us. Even when they are unhealthy or make us unhappy, they are familiar.

The best any of us can do is to grow in spite of what holds us back. To move forward while dragging all of it along.

The friend says Shelly still looks after Donald "because she's afraid he'll die" if he's left completely on his own. She's more mother than wife to him now. Another friend says simply, "She's from a generation that takes their marriage vows seriously."

Officially, they are still separated. He spends most of his time at his house in Beverly Hills. But in the past few months, she's let him back into the house in Malibu a few times.

"We're in each other's lives and we probably always will be," Shelly says. "We're together sometimes, and sometimes not together."

As I leave, I notice a bouquet of white roses in a vase near the kitchen table. They are from Donald, for Mother's Day.

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